How to know if your back pain signals something serious

In America today, neck and back pain can seem as typical as the common cold. And once you’ve reached adulthood, you’re likely to experience some bouts with it at multiple times throughout your life. A quick Internet search will reveal the seemingly countless ways you can deal with this pain, from potions and lotions to various devices and contraptions. But the truth is, most back pain episodes will resolve on their own with little intervention required on your part. That can be tough to tolerate in a fast-paced world that allows for little downtime. A few days of dealing with back pain can genuinely feel like a lifetime to some people.

Further complicating the matter is this fact: Some of those neck and back pain episodes may be signaling more than just your average strain or ache. But how do you know? Here are some signs that a visit to your doctor is in order.

[See: 5 Bodyweight Exercises to Fix Your Posture.]

A traumatic event. If you’re experiencing any type of pain that’s the result of trauma to the body — a car accident, a fall or an assault, for example — then a visit to the doctor is entirely in order. Don’t shake it off as no big deal. From spinal cord lacerations to vertebral fractures, a traumatic event can absolutely cause damage to the spine, even if you’re able to get up and walk right after it happened. When spinal injuries go undiagnosed and untreated, they can result in much bigger problems down the road. So don’t wait. Get to your doctor and have the pain evaluated by an expert asap.

Limb numbness and/or tingling. Some people describe it as a “pins and needles” sensation; others describe it as a complete loss of feeling — but however it presents, it usually signals an issue with the nerves in the affected area of the back or neck. A variety of conditions can cause numbness and tingling in the limbs, from sciatica to spinal stenosis or a herniated disc. All of them warrant proper diagnosis and treatment by a spine health expert because prolonged irritation of nerves can lead to permanent damage, and in some cases, disability later on.

[See: 11 Ways to Cope With Back Pain.]

Fever. The type of fever referenced here isn’t your typical fever from a virus like the flu, where you’re likely experiencing body aches all over, including in your neck or back. Instead, this is a fever that’s seemingly unresolved and is accompanied by back pain alone or predominantly. When this occurs, it’s usually the body’s response to some type of infection that needs to be looked at right away by your doctor.

Incontinence. Back pain that also seems to be tied to a loss of function in the bladder or bowels is serious and warrants medical attention. Certain conditions can result in incontinence due to compression of nerves in the spine that travel down to and affect the organs that control bladder and bowel function. It’s important to note that a loss of continence doesn’t have to be sudden; it can happen over time and when spinal nerves are involved, and it may include numbness or weakness in the legs. So if you’ve been feeling a decline in your bladder or bowel function and are also experiencing back pain, it’s essential to have your doctor check it out.

Unresolved pain. Sometimes back pain can be enough of an annoyance that we merely figure out how to deal with it and live around it or in spite of it. But if you’ve been experiencing consistent pain in the neck or spine that hasn’t resolved in six to 2 weeks on its own, it’s definitely time to visit a spine specialist to figure out what’s going on. No one should have to just grin and bear it. Including you!

[See: Different Types of Pain, Explained.]

Back pain may be one fact of life many of us have in common, but sometimes it warrants more attention. If you’re experiencing pain with any of the above symptoms or something else just doesn’t seem right, make an appointment — asap. Your spine is a significant contributor to your ability to live an active and healthy life, so give it the consideration it deserves.

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